Overcoming the challenges of setting right expectations

And inculcating the value of ownership in your team

Kaushani Sarkar
Sep 5, 2019 · 7 min read

I recently read a very interesting comic in The Guardian. The comic illustrator has beautifully captured the concept of the ‘mental load’ on working women. In the comic, a mother is feeding her young ones while cooking meals for a guest while the husband is sipping wine on the sofa and chit-chatting with the guest. After a while, she forgets that she had kept something on the stove. She remembers it when the food pot starts overflowing. Just about then even the husband jumps from the couch saying — “what a disaster! What did you do?” They argue a bit, to which the husband says “But..you should have asked! I would’ve helped!”

I read it till here and was completely flustered at this fictional comic man! How could he not see himself that all of this could have been avoided if he had offered to help instead of chit-chatting. Does it always have to be ‘ask-me-first’? Why couldn’t he see for himself and offer to help to make things easier for his wife?

*sigh*

Soon, my hyper-ventilating mind slowed down and I realized that maybe I was feeling too much for a comic character. But you know what? The comic strip brought some of my experiences from work — all of which were just so relatable!

I’m sure you too must have faced such situations where you had some expectations from your team members. But instead of sharing them verbally, you left them unsaid. You might have thought that it is one of those things that you talk about quite often. At a later stage, when you see that the path of action is not what you were expecting, you’re taken aback and left deeply saddened. Primarily, because you had expected someone to own up and maybe even walk up to you (for reassurance), hold your hand (dramatic, I know) and say — “You need not worry about it at all — I will take care of it!”

I know, a bit dreamy! But you get my point, don’t you?

The reason why I sat down to write this post is because today I want to share my thoughts with the world on this topic. I often grapple with this situation and I know, so do you! And we all know that re-establishing expectations is not easy. You’ve to do everything all over again and that can be agonizing at times.

On the other hand, you could look for signs that clearly determine why some team members might not be delivering as per the expectations.

Is it you or them? What should you do if it’s a problem from your end? What should you do in such a situation, or what proactive measures one should take so that this is not a recurring situation?

I have some suggestions that might be helpful. I learned and applied some of them in my team. Please take it with a grain of salt as this is something that might not work in totality but will definitely seed in the thought of alternatives in case you ever came across such a situation.

Letting go of the Autocratic (Feudal) mindset of Leadership and encourage team members to take ownership

As Leaders, we are often shaped by our prior experiences and unknowingly, we tell the team members what to do or how to lead an initiative. What we end up doing, is limiting the team member’s thought process by loading our belief, our experience and our mindset thus limiting or at times disabling the creative ability of the team members.

Instead, what we should focus on is discussing with them to understand their approach while leading an initiative. What is their plan for execution, what are the desired outcomes they expect from the plan, what could be the possible challenges they might face during implementation, what kind of help are they expecting from us. Such creative freedom has a huge impact on the team members’ morale, as now they would have their creative bug activated. Secondly, it will motivate them to develop a knack for experimenting while learning a thing or two.

As a leader, what we should do is try and identify if there are any possible challenges in the approach your team suggests. If there’s anything that can defeat the purpose thus not ending up with the desired outcome, discuss and let your team know about it. This is all you need to do as a Leader — guide them towards the right approach.

Leading with Curiosity

As Leaders, making way for curiosity to enable team members think through and share solutions/alternatives is important. The reason why this is important is because when they begin to think through the problem and implement the plan, you will soon see their level of enthusiasm soar new heights.

The natural instinct of ownership will make way towards achieving the end result. This time though, the fear of the unknown would have subdued and the confidence of a predictable outcome would surface. This would be possible only when you encourage team members to chalk out an approach, think all predicaments and, most importantly, let them know that you are standing by them.

Don’t become a micromanager

There’s a famous quote about micromanagement which I often share with my team.

Micromanagement is when you’re constantly nagging about status updates, or standing over your team member to know what progress she has made or will she be able to deliver her work on time or not. Such behavior kills team’s productivity as they start feeling that their team leader doesn’t trust them.

In my opinion, the focus should rather be to groom the team member by asking probing questions, to help them decipher the path forward. Leaders should keep anxiety at bay and rather spend time early on to understand the plan, responsibilities taken up by the team members and keep a close watch on the committed milestones.

I know it sounds utopian, but you can begin by setting up a cadence of reporting so that you get to know the status without getting paranoid of how things would turn out in the end. Calendar invites for cadence of review is the strongest and by-far one of the most successful ways of tracking progress; that too right from the planning stage.

This will save both time and energy at the Leaders end. The focus will thus remain towards a quality deliverables while twitching out obstacles!

Clarifying the Consequences

Often the reluctance of ownership stems from the apprehensions of the team members to understand the consequences of failure at the end of execution. Will it be ok if they fail? What will happen if they couldn’t meet deadlines? Will their leader still support them?

The story of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam (former President of India) and that of his Leader Shri Satish Dhawan comes really handy. Dr. Kalam recalled this story of the failure of a satellite launch and how that impacted his morale. Here’s how the story unfolded-

After 10 years of working on a satellite launch, on the day of the launch, the system started giving some errors notifying some leakage in the control system of the satellite. After consulting with his team members and getting their assurance on going ahead with the launch, he went ahead and launched the satellite. The satellite crashed and fell into the Bay of Bengal. At that time, he didn’t know how to handle failure and was frightened to go in front of the press and face their accusations.

Satish Dhawan, Chairman, ISRO walked in as a true leader and told Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam that he himself will be addressing the press. He took him to the conference hall and took the responsibility of the failure on himself. He said, ‘Dear friends, we have failed today. I want to support my technologists, my scientists, my staff, so that next year they succeed.’

Next year, when Dr. Kalam’s team succeeded, professor Dhawan said, ‘You go and conduct this press conference.’

This is such a great example of a leader who comes forward to support his team in failure, but when success came he gave it to his team.

Just imagine the impact of this kind of trust this would give to your team!

Therefore, assurance and trust from your side, will be the epitome of success for the team members. Because when your team knows that despite the most predictable outcome of their plan, if at all there was a failure their Leader would be standing with them.

I have had my share of experiences while setting expectations, feeling at a loss when those were not delivered on time, and then resetting them again. Sometimes, I was at fault. But the good thing is that I’ve figured out solutions and we have worked on them as a team.

I think it’s safe to say that there are less fires that I’ve to put off now. I hope you also figure out ways to set up the right expectations and help your team grow tremendously.


I wrote this blog for our Medium Publication- Unboxing Product Management. The publication is a weekly column by people of Quovantis to share their learning.

Unboxing Product Management

Your weekly dose of everything related to Product, Process and People.

Kaushani Sarkar

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Unboxing Product Management

Your weekly dose of everything related to Product, Process and People.

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